News From Terre Haute, Indiana

November 9, 2013

Genealogy: Dresser’s fall in 20th century from wealthy to bankrupt

Tamie Dehler
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Paul Dresser, Terre Haute native and composer of Indiana’s state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash Far Away,” attained wealth and success in the 19th century, but it was all to change in the 20th. Then, several things converged that had a enormous impact on Dresser’s life.

First, music styles were changing. Dresser wrote sentimental songs of mother, country, and home, but the nation’s appetite for these songs was waning — and a style called ragtime was gaining popularity. Dresser, however, continued to write in the same fashion, for whatever personal reason. His sentimental songs began to lose popularity with the public. Second, he was a very poor businessman. His partnership in a music publishing firm fell apart and eventually went bankrupt. These two factors limited his income, which had been substantial. Third, his own generous and liberal nature did him in. He continued to spend and squander his money lavishly in saloons and brothels, and to give away money to family and friends. With less money coming in, he became insolvent. Finally, his health was deteriorating. He weighed more than 300 pounds.

In 1900, on the last census in which Dresser was enumerated, he appears to be living in a hotel in Manhattan, New York, at 37th and Broadway. He is listed as a lodger, age 39, occupation song writer. His birth date and age is off and both his own and his parents’ birth places are given as Massachusetts. He is also listed as married, but there is no wife in the household and number of years married was left blank. (He never married, according to biographers). Did he intentionally give this misleading information, or was it supplied to the census taker by another lodger?

In 1905 he moved in with a sister who lived in New York City. He died there on Jan. 31, 1906, of a brain hemorrhage. He was financially destitute at his death. There was a funeral service held in New York on Feb. 4 at the Church of St. Francis Xavier at Sixth Avenue and 16th Street. It was attended by many performers, musicians, actors and singers of vaudeville. His body was held by the Calvary Cemetery in Queens County until March 19 when the family procured enough money for his burial. He was then moved to the St. Boniface Cemetery in Chicago, where his parents are buried. A funeral service was held there in April. There was never any money for a memorial stone, and the family left his grave unmarked. In 1922, the Indiana Society of Chicago provided a marker in the form of a large boulder transported from the banks of the Wabash River and engraved with his name. This can be viewed on Find a Grave at

Dresser has been described as generous and charitable, romantic and sentimental, having no business sense, living in the here-and-now, boisterous and jovial, hedonistic and improvident, sometimes moody and brooding, and moved by the pain and misfortune of others. His personality and character were forged in his early years living in Terre Haute and Sullivan. There, he loved music and fanfare. His father, Paul Dreiser Sr., was a German immigrant, a dogmatic and “fanatical” Catholic, self-pitying and ultimately unsuccessful at business. His mother Sarah Schnab was of Moravian descent and from a Mennonite family. She was disowned after eloping with Dreiser. Accounts describe her as hard-working, all-forgiving and controlling.

Paul rebelled against his father’s will, which dictated that he become a priest. He was always forgiven by his mother, even when he caroused with prostitutes and imbibed in saloons. His family had periods of extreme poverty, but being the eldest child who left early, Paul was not as exposed to this as his younger siblings. His optimistic and sentimental point of view allowed him to create music that reveled in home, mother and country.

Continued next week.